Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Why Were So Many Sundance Movies about Break-Ups This Year?

An Over-Simplification of Her Beauty

In recent years, it seems that no Sundance is complete without at least one break-out film about break-ups. Whether it arrives via something intense and dramatic like Blue Valentine or lighthearted and wistful like (500) Days of Summer, romantic angst has seemingly become the festival’s bread and butter. And while this year’s festival didn’t appear to generate a true stand-out in the vein of those earlier films (though you never know – 500 Days didn’t initially feel like it was going to be the hit it later became), it wasn’t for lack of trying. Indeed, break-ups, in all their varied forms, were ubiquitous onscreen at this year’s Sundance.

The film that initially seemed set to seize the Blue Valentine/500 Days crown was Lee Toland Krieger’s Celeste and Jesse Forever, in which Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg play a husband and wife with very different personalities who decide to divorce -- only to discover it’s quite hard to quit one another, even as they pursue other relationships. Playing a fairly buttoned-down, successful career woman, Jones gets the film’s juiciest part, as she becomes increasingly neurotic and obsessive after her ex begins to seriously see someone new. The film initially met with a tepid response from critics (Lou Lumenick of the New York Post called it “Young Adult with training wheels”) but it seemed to win over audiences. It’s also gotten picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, which means it’s assured a fairly prominent theatrical release. So, who knows? Maybe we’ll be talking about it a year from now as this year’s big Sundance break-up movie.

An interesting analog to the Celeste and Jesse relationship could be found in the decidedly more lighthearted Save the Date, a romantic comedy in which Lizzy Caplan’s character breaks off a long-term relationship after her rocker boyfriend (Geoffrey Arend) proposes to her in the middle of a concert. Both Date and Celeste tackle the very difficult process of trying to wean yourself away from someone who has been a very important part of your life, though they find themselves in different places. Celeste and Jesse indulges in the very real torment of trying (and failing) to move on from a break-up, while Save the Date chooses to turn its focus towards newfound love: Caplan’s character begins seeing someone new (Mark Webber) as soon as her other relationship is over, and the film is more interested in her ability to juggle heartbreak and possibility -- and whether the new man in her life represents a genuine connection or a simple rebound. Interestingly, however, both films decide to use pregnancies as their third act dei ex machina – suggesting that, at least in the world of the Sundance relationship movie, the drift towards commitment sometimes needs an extra little shove.

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Break-ups also figure prominently in I Am Not a Hipster, a strange comedy-drama where an indie musician wrestles with authenticity, in the wake of a relationship; in Liberal Arts, where a thirty-something Josh Radnor wrestles with his attraction to college sophomore Elizabeth Olsen, in the wake of a relationship; in Hello, I Must Be Going, where Melanie Lynskey wrestles with her attraction to 19-year-old Christopher Abbott, in the wake of a relationship; in Simon Killer, where Brady Corbet wrestles with his emotionally violent need for Parisian prostitute Mati Diop, in the wake of a relationship; in That’s What She Said, where Marcia DeBonis, Anne Heche, and Alia Shawqat go out on the town, in the wake of two relationships. Seriously, we could go on: Even Black Rock, Katie Aselton’s gory midnight movie about three girlfriends being chased by crazed Iraq veterans on a remote island, turns out to be partly about a broken relationship. Are we sensing a trend yet?

And that’s not even counting the films that are about relationships under strain: From Ry Russo-Young’s Nobody Walks, in which young artist Olivia Thrilby throws John Krasinski and Rosemarie DeWitt’s marriage into turmoil, to Smashed, in which husband-and-wife Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul struggle with the perils of alcoholism. Even one of this year’s biggest documentaries, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, finds its most touching moments in the depiction of Abramovic’s powerful 13-year relationship and inspired collaboration with fellow artist Ulay (aka Uwe Laysiepen), with whom she is still close.

Many films use the shorthand of a break-up narrative to provide some quick character shading: After all, we can all pretty much relate to stories of dashed romance in some way, so this is an easy way to get us to identify with the characters onscreen, even if we know next to nothing about the relationships themselves. Simon Killer, in fact, uses this phenomenon with some narrative savvy – by allowing us to identify with Simon’s lovesick melancholy before slowly revealing to us how emotionally twisted and monstrous he really is.

Keep the Lights On

Rarely, however, do these films tackle not the just narrative of break-up (attempts/failures to move on, etc.), but the very nature of the relationship and break-up itself. This year’s fest gave us two stand-outs on that score: In Sundance regular Ira Sachs’s somewhat autobiographical Keep the Lights On, we watch the development and disintegration of a turbulent long-term, gay love affair between a filmmaker and a drug-addicted lawyer.  The story is told in multi-year increments, giving it an introspective quality – as if the filmmaker is going back over snatches of details and charting their trajectory from initial passion to emotional enslavement. While other films give us characters brooding about their broken hearts, Keep the Lights On, with its obsessive attention to detail and its weaving of memories, is a film one of those characters might have actually made.

But even that film is not quite as obsessive as the tiny, dazzlingly experimental An Over-Simplification of Her Beauty, in which director Terence Nance utilizes documentary footage, an old short film he made, animation, onscreen text, voice recordings, and narrative recreations to go over the ups and downs of a particularly heartbreaking relationship and break-up. Here at last we are in the belly of the beast: Despite its hyper-specificity, and the fact that he and his former paramour are often onscreen to fill in the details, Nance’s film (which is often as hilarious as it is devastating) winds up being a stand-in for every doomed love.

Indeed, he even acknowledges the phenomenon of mis-identification in a bravura sequence where he makes his girlfriend read a passage from a Louise Erdrich novel he thinks carries some deep echo of their relationship. As she reads, the film portrays onscreen all the ways that their love resonates with the one in the book. This cinematic reverie is broken when she finally puts the book down, casually saying that she doesn’t see the similarities. In a few quick minutes, Nance, much like Sachs does in a more narrative framework, captures the confounding push-and-pull between the emotional universality of heartbreak and the unspoken specificity of individual experience. How appropriate then that these two films, by spending most of their screen time depicting the actual relationship, wind up being even more astute about the break-ups themselves. Along the way, they manage to cut the viewer’s heart up into little pieces and deposit them all over the Rocky Mountains.

An Over-Simplification of Her Beauty

There’s something else to be said about these aforementioned films: They’re almost all American. What does that imply? Is it simply that American filmmakers (particularly young American filmmakers) are more emotionally indulgent than their international brethren? Is it that they simply lack enough hot button issues like social upheaval and sectarian violence to make movies about? Maybe. Or maybe it’s that in an America where independent films cost less and less, more and more filmmakers are turning more inwards, towards stories told in miniature. Let’s not forget that, back during the days of the French New Wave, it was the Europeans who had the requisite frankness and emotional nakedness to look at love and loss, while Americans were too busy making bloated studio epics and genre pictures.

To be fair, there were some break-ups and divorces in some of this year’s international films at Sundance -- but they seemed like relatively minor plot points, almost afterthoughts. But then again, the international contingent at Sundance this year did give us at least one true, honest-to-god break-up story. Actually, they gave us the ultimate break-up story: Andrea Arnold’s much-acclaimed adaptation of Emily Bronte’s stormy and (yes) emotionally indulgent tale of passionate love found and lost, Wuthering Heights.


  1. Corrections:
    Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Terence Nance.

  2. EEK. Corrected. That's what I get for rushing this stuff.